My introduction to retired Philippine Marine Corps General Juancho Sabban was every bit as colorful and adventurous as the General himself.  The former Marine Corps commandant is well-respected in military circles and known as something of a legend who played a big role in shaping his country’s approach to dealing with insurgencies.

I was eager to meet the General but he insisted that I interview him in the field.  A cushy hotel lobby in Manila wasn’t a suitable place for a meeting from the General’s perspective so I found myself on a flight down to Zamboanga, a city that had been under siege by terrorists just four years ago.

Stepping off the plane and walking down the steps, it felt as if I was breathing through a sponge due to the humidity.  In the terminal I was met by several plain clothes Marines who work as a personal security detachment.  They led me to their vehicle, drove me to my hotel to check in my bags, and then we were off to the General’s residence.  While poverty certainly exists in Manila, much of the city is upscale and modern.  By comparison, Zamboanga was a city that reminded me of the urban sprawl that I had seen in Central America, the Middle East, or parts of Africa.  One difference was the oddly placed triumphs of western capitalism poking through.  Every so often there would be a McDonald’s or other fast food chain plopped down next to shanties.


Jeepneys and motor bikes crowd the streets as the Marines negotiate their way through traffic.  It is dark by the time we pull up to a walled off compound.  Slinging my messenger bag over my shoulder (loaded with camera equipment and all that other gear I lug around) I walked through the gate and right into a party.  General Sabban stood and shook my hand, welcoming me to his 60th birthday party.

Driving around Zambo with Marine escorts

“You drink beer right?” his wife asks.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied

And just like that I’m drinking San Mig with General Sabban as he tells me how he sat in his living room with CIA officers and plotted the death of Abu Sayyaf spokesmen Abu Sabaya.  After 9/11 two types of CIA personnel showed up in the Philippines according to several people I spoke with.  The first group were veteran Cold Warriors.  They knew how to find live communists and turn them into dead bodies, and they did the same to terrorists.  The second group were younger oblivious grad school kids who didn’t know the difference between a Thuraya and a Kalashnikov.

Soon dinner is served and we all pause to say grace.  The General’s Marine buddies, both active duty and retired, are here for the party and the Philippine military takes religion quite seriously.  Sabban encourages me to try to pig that has been roasted over a spit.  I watch a little girl get first dibs and pull a crusty ear off the pig.  I helped myself and found all of the food to be outstanding.